Last week the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee looked into the issue of councils producing their own newspapers. My view on this subject has changed from objecting on principle to being a bit more pragmatic. Firstly because as my own Council has shown it is possible to produce a newspaper at nil cost to the Council Taxpayer through funding from advertising.
Secondly, I do think there is a valid role for a Council communicating with residents and in some boroughs such as mine only a small minority read paid for local newspapers. There are many issues where the involvement of residents as active citizens is enormously helpful to the Council achieving its objectives. (Would you like to start a Neighbourhood Watch scheme? Would you like to sponsor a street tree? Would you like to be a school governor? Are you in interested in fostering or adoption? Etc, etc, etc.) Then there are all the events and services which the Council is involved with which residents can only use if they are aware of them. We have a fireworks display on Saturday evening in Ravenscourt Park. The more who turn up the greater the revenue for the Council.
For most Councils the argument is rather different as the Council newspaper or magazine is not self financing. But what is often ignored in the equation is the Council spending on advertising in private newspapers. The Lib Dem Council leader of Portsmouth City Council Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson, (I think with pride: "We spend £970,000 a year advertising in our local paper, so £970,000 of public support for a private newspaper in Portsmouth." How independent can a newspaper really be when it has that level of dependency? Can such huge spending be justified given many people don't read the paper?
At least Cllr Vernon-Jackson makes a good point in calling on the Government to end the requirement to advertise planning and licensing notices:
"We spend £40,000 a year doing our public notices for planning and, as far as I can see, that is a complete and utter waste of public money. I do not know anybody who scans page 49 of the Portsmouth Evening News to look for the planning applications. When we drop letters to everybody in the local area to tell them there is a planning application, we put a sign up outside the property to tell people there is a planning application. All that money is money out of council tax payers' pockets to subsidise a private newspaper. It is, in my view, a waste of money. Unfortunately, the Government tells us we have to waste that money. It is a statutory duty, yes, but actually, if we put it up on the website and did things properly in terms of telling local people, then you could actually give a much better service for a lot less money."
Ironically this requirement gives Councils an incentive to produce a fortnightly rather than monthly publication as they can then run the statutory notices in their own publication. My colleague Cllr Mark Loveday reported to the committee that in the case of Hammersmith and Fulham the legal requirement meant spending £400,000 on advertising in private local newspapers before we produced our own fortnightly paper.